Ai weiwei's sunflower seeds and the current production condition of the Jingdezhen ceramic industry

November 21, 2017

 

Physically Feel

 

"Sunflower Seeds" is Ai Weiwei's work. These 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds weigh over 150 tons and were prepared for production from five or six years ago. It is not industrially produced or ‘readymade’ objects, they are hand-crafted by skilled artisans in Jingdezhen. Because of the huge quantity, about 1,600 skilled workers finished the work in more than two years. Each of them are handmade and the process has more than 30 procedures. Each side of the replica has four strokes to represent a sunflower seed. It is hard to distinguish it if the porcelain sunflower seeds fell into the real one. It fully demonstrates the millinery technique and craftsmanship of Jingdezhen. It is also a sensory and immersive installation which visitors can touch, walk on and listen to as the seeds shift beneath their feet. They jumped, ran, played, and even laid down on the 1000 square meters of hand created artwork. When visitors set foot on this 10 centimeters deep sunflower sea, it felt like walking on the beach. The seed carpet was a veritable playground for children, they believed they were on the beach, in the snow or simply relaxing in the park. However, this romantic landscape is not the real meaning of this work. Some reviewer thought the large-scale production simply created a garbage. It is a waste of human and financial resources.

 

 

Contemporary Context

 

'Sunflower Seeds' is a work closely related to the society, politics and economy in China, and also a project that can be accomplished only in this country. One hundred million sunflower seeds are five times number of the population in Beijing and one in four Internet users in China. The large-scale production of works, on the one hand, criticized that China is experiencing the blindly mass production to meet the needs of the market; on the other hand, "it ridiculously shows the current social situation that the efforts that repeatedly accumulated by a small number of individuals are huge but useless." (Faurschou Foundation, 2012). Absurdly, 'Sunflower Seeds' provided work for 1,600 artisans in Jingdezhen, a fact that is an ironic reflection of the social reality. As Ai Weiwei (2010) said, because the craftsmen used to making practical porcelain, especially the pottery experts who were accustomed to painting high-class classical patterns, it was hard for them to understand the seemingly simple and esoteric plan.

 

Ai Weiwei also likes to compare his work to his favorite Twitter - the countless ideas and exchanged messages in the information ocean, are all from the individual. This platform allows participants to personally connect with a large number of strangers. It constantly change society as JIng yanyan (2010) said, "it is a tremendous force composed of individuals."

 

The installation also seems to refer to contemporary China as a nation of mass production and reproduction. Seen from a distance, the seeds looks like a great grey mass, which could also reference the way we view China’s massive population.

 

 

 

 

Cultural Heritage

 

For more than a millennium, the only production operation in Jingdezhen was ceramic. Despite many changes of dynasty, the craft was still handed down from generation to generation, providing the royal court with the most exquisite ceramics. But now, it cannot produce tributes but commodities. Besides, because of inaccessibility and economic recession, the ceramic market in contemporary times is in a downturn. Many craftsmen were facing unemployment. Ai weiwei plans to hire 1,600 professional craftsmen for two year and improve some problems of employment. But the current situation changed because government supports for industrial park in Jingdezhen.

 

The sunflower seed also provokes some other meanings within China’s historical context. For normal people, sunflower seeds are a common street snack shared by friends.  But it also carries personal associations with Cultural Revolution (1966–76) in Mao Zedong period. "The propaganda images depicted Chairman Mao as the sun and the mass of people as sunflowers turning towards him."( Megan L., 2015). And in this context, The sunflower symbolizes oppression, because it cannot choose where it turns to. During this same period, poverty forced a lot of people to eat sunflower seeds to survive off.

 

 

 

 

Reference

 

Faurschou Foundation, 2012. About Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds  Available at http://www.aiweiweiseeds.com (Accessed:20 November 2017)

 

Jingyanyan, 2010. Ai weiwei and 100 millions sunflower. Hong Kong Economic Times

 

 Megan L., 2015. Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds)  Available at https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/global-contemporary/a/sseeds-ai-weiwei (Accessed:20 November 2017)

 

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